Who Owns Quinoa?

Quinoa is an amazing food that actually lives to the hype. It provides significant amounts of calcium, iron, fibre, essential fatty acids, vitamin E, and unlike any other plant food in the world it’s a complete protein, says Lisa Hamilton her article for Harper’s magazine.

quinoa-field

Not only is Quinoa nutritious and gluten free but it grows on poor soil high in the Andean plateau, most of it in Bolivia. It’s a perfect food for feeding the world’s starving masses, not just the Whole Foods crowd. So what’s holding it back?

Ownership, for one. Bolivia owns the seeds and doesn’t want to share them for good reason. Bolivia saw what happened when they shared the potato with the world. Cultivation became mechanized, driving down the price to the point where Bolivian farmers couldn’t compete on world potato markets.

And when Mexico shared it’s miracle of corn with the world, growth was industrialized, genetically modified, and subsidized in the U.S. to the point that Mexican farmers were deprived of a livelihood.

Betrayal, for another. Bolivia shared Quinoa seeds for decades until U.S. researchers played a dirty trick and patented a variety in 1994. The researchers claimed their variety was intellectual property. Bolivians saw it as bio-piracy; they didn’t buy the argument that the improved variety would eventually benefit Bolivia. They’ve heard this argument before. Yields would improve if farmers bought patented seeds rather that use their own traditional varieties.

For Bolivia it’s all about food sovereignty and providing an income for farmers. It’s about national identity and politics. In preparation for the year of Quinoa in 2013, President Evo Morales climbed on a tractor near his hometown high in the Andes and ploughed furrows for Quinoa. It’s about religion. Townspeople sacrificed a llama to ask Pachamama, or Mother Earth, for a good harvest.

Regrettably, capturing world markets on Quinoa has had unintended consequences. The nutritious seed is so popular that the price has jumped to ten times what it was in 2000. Bolivia’s malnutrition rate of 24 per cent has barely budged; despite abundance of the perfect food and government subsidies to distribute it to poor Bolivians.

The Quinoa boom has placed stress on the fragile, arid land as nitrogen levels drop from soil depletion. Soaring crop prices has led to cultivation in more fertile soils, replacing potatoes, beans and oats in some fields. Mechanization could improve soil nitrogen but it’s machinery that poor farmers can’t afford.

Ironically, although Quinoa grows well in poor salty soil at altitudes over 12,000 feet, it doesn’t thrive at lower altitudes even where the soil is better.  A solution could be genetic modification but that is fraught with peril. American geneticists have partially mapped the genome of Quinoa and found 1,000 markers that would allow breeders to produce plants  grow in a variety of altitudes, moisture levels, and soils.

Unfortunately, the benefits of genetically modified Quinoa would not likely flow to Bolivia. Geneticists like to protect their “intellectual property” but what about the true intellectual property that belongs to the Andean people who carefully selected varieties of Quinoa over thousands of years to become the marvellous food it is today?

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